WorldFish's Shakuntala Thilsted honored with Arrell Global Food Innovation Award

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Dr. Shakuntala Thilsted

CGIAR scientist at WorldFish honored for her nutrition-centered research innovation in fish and aquatic food systems that has improved the nutrition and health for millions of the world’s most vulnerable. 

Shakuntala Haraksingh Thilsted, global lead for nutrition and public health at WorldFish, was named the recipient of the 2021 Arrell Global Food Innovation Award for her pioneering nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems, in both fisheries and aquaculture, that honor local, culturally appropriate solutions to improve the nutrition, health and development of children and mothers across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Thilsted was honored through Canada’s University of Guelph Arrell Food Institute award program. The award began in 2018 and is judged by an international adjudication committee, recognizing those who make exceptional research innovation to create more equitable, suitable, efficient, and nutritious food systems. Two prizes are awarded annually in two categories: research innovation and community engagement innovation.

“I am honored to receive the 2021 Arrell Food Innovation Award. This is an important recognition of the essential but often overlooked role of fish and aquatic food systems in agricultural research for development. As a researcher, I have developed and implemented local, culturally appropriate food-based solutions that improve nutrition and health for millions of malnourished children and their mothers in countries across Asia and Africa, where fish and other aquatic foods are integral to diets and culture," said Thilsted on receiving the honor.

"This award acknowledges the unmatched potential of diverse aquatic foods in food system research, policies, and interventions, at national, regional and global levels. Aquatic foods offer life-changing opportunities for millions of vulnerable women, children, and men to be well-nourished and healthy."

"The Arrell Food Innovation Award recognizes the value of research that builds on local diets, food production and cultures in low-and middle-income countries. This is crucial to shaping the global discourse on nutrition and public health, as well as our shared call to action to transform food systems towards sustainable healthy diets for all, " said the nutrition researcher who is the Vice Chair for UN Food Systems Summit 2021 Action Track 4: Advance Equitable Livelihoods.

The award celebrates Thilsted as the first to identify the nutritional value of small fish species such as Mola and Trey Changwa Plieng, native to Bangladesh and Cambodia. This breakthrough showed that these commonly found and consumed small fish are rich in micronutrients and essential fatty acids that offer life-changing benefits for children's cognitive development in their first 1000 days of life and the nutrition and health of their mothers.

Shakuntala at fish market

Armed with this knowledge, Thilsted worked with local communities, researchers, governments and the private sector to develop nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems from production, supply and consumption, to improve the access and intake of nutritious small fish among vulnerable children and women. This included the development of a number of practical and affordable nutrition-sensitive innovations, like homestead pond polyculture, women-friendly harvesting techniques, nutritional education campaigns and the development of culturally appropriate fish-based products, like fish powder and fish chutney, suitable for consumption by young children and lactating women.

The pond polyculture system is a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way of farming small and large fish species together in homestead ponds, water bodies, and rice fields. This innovation which helped to significantly increase the quality, diversity, and quantity of available, nutritious food in many local communities, prompted a large-scale shift towards aquaculture production in Bangladesh. In addition, it led the Government of Bangladesh to recognize the pond polyculture system as a critical innovation for meeting national targets to beat hunger, malnutrition, gender inequality, and poverty.

Her nutrition-sensitive approaches to food production from land and water have put nutrition and public health outcomes at the forefront, with due consideration for equal access to and affordability of diverse nutritious foods for all and environmental health and sustainability. For the last 10 years, Thilsted has been leading WorldFish’s efforts to adapt and scale these approaches across countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific where aquatic foods are central to local diets, livelihoods and culture. 

“Holistic, locally-sourced innovation is at the heart of both the 2021 winners’ work and part of what has made their innovative approaches so successful. We are delighted to award these prizes to such important international actors, bringing a food-secure future for all closer to reality.” said Evan Fraser, the director of Arrell Food Institute.

“This year’s award winners demonstrate the importance of honoring and amplifying culture, history, and tradition to make progress on current challenges in the global food system. Their work continues to inspire other scientists and activists around the world, and certainly here at the University of Guelph. Thank you to the Arrell Family Foundation for supporting these awards and the work of innovative actors across the globe.” said University of Guelph president and vice-chancellor Charlotte Yates.

Dr. Shakuntala

The Arrell Food Institute award program recognized Thilsted as a mentor of many scientists and activists, and her efforts to advocate for better food and nutrition security solutions on the global stage. From the research, field work to the highest level of policy, the impressive body of Thilsted's scientific research innovation is shifting global narratives of food production to higher food systems thinking, from the discourse on 'feeding' a growing global population to 'nourishing' all people, all nations and the planet.

“This award recognizes Dr. Thilsted’s influential body of work that has built the case on the essential role diverse aquatic foods have for improving the nutrition and health of vulnerable communities in low- and middle-income countries. It underscores the importance of prioritizing aquatic foods in food systems and nutrition and public health research, policies and investments. Her nutrition-sensitive innovations encourage us to take a holistic approach to transform food, land and water systems for sustainable healthy diets that work for all people and our planet,” emphasized WorldFish's Director General and CGIAR Senior Director of Aquatic Food Systems, Gareth Johnstone on Thilsted’s achievement. 

“Recent accolades awarded to CGIAR scientists underscore the global recognition of the important contributions of our work towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. CGIAR researchers and innovations are at the forefront of efforts to enhance the climate resilience of food, land and water systems, to boost sustainable production and food security for small-scale producers and consumers, and to improve nutrition for the world’s most vulnerable,” said Claudia Sadoff, Managing Director, Research Delivery and Impact, and Executive Management Team Convener, CGIAR.

This year, Thilsted was also awarded the 2021 World Food Prize, she is a member of the Steering Committee of the High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) on Food Security and Nutrition.